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Terror in the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’

An act of terror.

An act of hate.

The world responded with love and compassion, fury and fight.

Early on the morning of June 12, a gunman armed with an assault rifle and a handgun went on a rampage at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. He killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 others — some gravely.

The 29-year-old killer was an American who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, abused his wife, used slurs against blacks, Jewish people, women and gays — although he himself was a regular patron of Pulse. He went on to terrorize LGBT people in that place that existed to celebrate Pride and provide sanctuary.

Orlando — famously known as the “Happiest Place on Earth” — became the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, a massacre that left Americans mourning the many lost and struggling to address extremism, prejudice and gun access.

“I can’t stop crying. I can’t make any sense of it all,” said Henry Rivera of Orlando, a transgender man who works at a restaurant just outside Disney World. “Everything seems different now.”

Music, dancing, and terror

On June 11, more than 300 people crowded into the high-energy club on South Orange Avenue for Latin night, an evening that promised entertainment by two drag performers, as well as dancing and music — salsa, meringue, bachata.

Shortly after 2 a.m. on June 12, Omar Mateen, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a Glock handgun, attacked the club, according to reports from the Orlando Police Department and FBI. As WiG to press, authorities were still compiling a detailed and complete timeline of what happened at Pulse.

Survivors described chaos as Mateen launched a barrage of bullets, striking people at the bar, on the dance floor, in the restrooms and elsewhere.

An off-duty Orlando police officer working as a security guard at the club responded to the gunfire. More officers arrived and Mateen retreated deeper into the club, then into a bathroom.

At 2:09 a.m. an alert was posted on Pulse’s Facebook page: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”

Dozens of people ran from the club, and more than 100 police officers responded to what became a standoff.

Police believe Mateen killed most of his victims in the first 30 minutes. Those remaining in the bar were either hostages or in hiding.

At 2:39 a.m., Eddie Justice texted his mother from the bathroom in the club:

“Call them mommy”

“Now”

“I’m still in the bathroom”

“Hes coming”

“Im going to die.”

Justice did die. His last text from the club was at 2:50 a.m.

At about 5 a.m., police used a controlled explosion and an armored vehicle with a battering ram to clear a way for people inside the club to escape.

Mateen died in an exchange of gunfire with police shortly after that.

Violent, conflicted and radicalized

The killer talked with police three times during the standoff, FBI Director James B. Comey said in a televised news briefing from headquarters in Virginia on June 13. Comey said calls from the killer to law enforcement began about 2:30 a.m. During those calls, Mateen, who was born in New York, claimed allegiance to the leader of Islamic State, as well as to the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon attack and to a Florida man who died as a suicide bomber in Syria.

“These are strong indications of radicalization by this killer and of potential inspiration by foreign terrorism organizations,” Comey said.

He added that the bureau, along with state and local law enforcement, were trying to understand “every moment of the killer’s path” leading up to the shooting.

The FBI was already familiar with Mateen. In May 2013, the bureau began investigating him after co-workers said the contract security guard made inflammatory comments and claimed a family connection to al-Qaida. He was interviewed twice but the case was closed.

Two months later, Mateen’s name came up as a casual acquaintance of a Florida man who blew himself up in Syria.

“Our investigation turned up no ties of any consequence between the two of them,” Comey said. “We will continue to look forward in this investigation and backward. We will leave no stone unturned.”

According to AP, the investigation found that Mateen, the son of an Afghan immigrant, was a body builder who attended a mosque in Fort Pierce, Florida, and wanted to become a police officer.

AP also reported there were questions emerging about whether Mateen was conflicted about his sexuality. He allegedly cased Gay Days at Disney World about a week before the shooting and was seen regularly at Pulse. He apparently used gay dating apps as well.

Mateen’s first wife, from whom he was divorced, has said he was abusive and suffered from mental illness. The killer’s father said Mateen expressed a hatred of gays, recently expressing anger at seeing two men kiss.

Mateen’s father also made homophobic remarks to the press, saying that it was wrong for his son to shoot gay people because their punishment should come from God.

“While the motive behind this crime remains unclear, our resolve to live openly and proudly remains undiminished. Now is a time for the whole nation to stand together against violence,” Rea Carey, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said June 12.

Chad Griffin, the president and CEO of the Human Rights Campaign, said, “This tragedy has occurred as our community celebrates Pride, and now more than ever we must come together as a nation to affirm that love conquers hate.”

Memorials and mobilizing

Vigils took place as early as June 12 and continued for days after the shooting.

Many of the observances included a moment of silence and a reading of the victims’ names (see “The slain, next page). Many vigils ended with candleholders singing “Over the Rainbow.”

Hundreds sang, “If happy little bluebirds fly/Beyond the rainbow why, oh, why can’t I?” at the end of a vigil June 13 in Sarasota, Florida, the hometown of Edward Sotomayor Jr., who recently helped to organize the first LGBT cruise from Florida to Cuba. Sotomayor was shot while trying to get his boyfriend to safety.

Many at the Sarasota vigil called the mass shooting a hate crime and, though there were demands for stricter gun control, the focus was on anti-LGBT violence.

“This attack was with guns, but our people have been killed with knives and bombs and fists, too,” said Patricia Callahan of Lakeland, Florida. “We can’t forget.”

Vigils took place across the country, at city halls and courthouses, plazas and parks, community centers and gay bars.

“This unimaginable atrocity has not only robbed countless people of their loved ones, it has also stolen a sense of safety within the LGBTQ community,” said GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis.

In New York City, many gathered outside the Stonewall Inn, considered the birthplace of the modern LGBT civil rights movement. There, they chanted, “No hate, no hate! More love, more love.”

In Wisconsin, multiple vigils took place, including in Milwaukee, Madison, Racine and Appleton.

There also were many memorials outside the United States. In Paris, U.S. and gay Pride flags flew at city hall and the Eiffel Tower was lit up like a rainbow.

Heads of state sent letters of condolence and issued condemnations. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said his country stands “shoulder to shoulder with our American brothers and sisters,” and Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah called the shooting a “senseless act of terror and hate.”

Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah urged “collective actions to end such attacks.”

At the United Nations, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein decried insufficient gun control in the United States and criticized the irresponsible pro-gun propagandizing in the country.

‘America’s rifle’

Criticism also was leveled in the United States.

The massacre is “a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship or in a movie theater or in a nightclub,” President Barack Obama said June 12, in remarks from the White House. “And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be.”

Mateen was armed with the handgun and a Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle — marketed in the U.S. as a “modern sporting rifle.” He purchased it at the St. Lucie Shooting Center in Florida. Semi-automatic rifles also were used in mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; San Bernardino, California; and elsewhere. The NRA calls that weapon class “America’ rifle.”

After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, the president dedicated the start of his second term to pushing legislation that would have banned certain assault-style weapons and capped the size of ammunition clips. The effort, however, failed in the U.S. Senate due to heavy opposition from Republicans who are backed by the National Rifle Association.

In the years since, some reforms have taken place at the state level. But GOP-headed states, including Wisconsin, have enacted measures to weaken gun control laws.

On June 13, Senate Democrats renewed calls for reform and Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee for president, repeated her call to keep weapons of war off the streets and “out of the hands of terrorists or other violent criminals.”

Clinton and the president postponed a campaign visit to Green Bay scheduled for June 15, as the president made plans to visit Orlando on June 16 to “stand in solidarity with the community.”

 

The slain

As WiG went to press, these were the known dead in the Pulse terror attack:

Stanley Almodovar III, 23; Amanda Alvear, 25; Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26; Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33; Antonio Davon Brown, 29; Darryl Roman Burt II, 29; Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28; Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25; Luis Daniel Conde, 39; Cory James Connell, 21; Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25; Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32; Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31; Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25; Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26; Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22; Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22; Paul Terrell Henry, 41; Frank Hernandez, 27; Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40; Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19; Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30; Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25; Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32; Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21; Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49; Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25; Kimberly Morris, 37; Akyra Monet Murray, 18; Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20; Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25; Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36; Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32; Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35; Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25; Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27; Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35; Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24; Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24; Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34; Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33; Martin Benitez Torres, 33; Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24; Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37; Luis S. Vielma, 22; Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50; Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37; Jerald Arthur Wright, 31.

 

Donations and support

Equality Florida, the statewide LGBT civil rights group, established a GoFundMe page to raise money to support those injured and the families of those killed at Pulse. Donations are accepted at www.gofundme.com/pulsevictimsfund.

The Associated Press contributed to these reports.

For updates and continued coverage, go to www.wisconsingazette.com.